Ja Morant steals the first day of the 2019 NCAA Tournament as Murray State mutilates Marquette
Zion Wiliamson is the biggest star, but he's not the only star of this event
HARTFORD, Conn. -- He dunked, he dazzled, he distributed.
Zion can wait because Thursday was Ja's day.
Murray State sophomore Ja Morant -- who is so athletically gifted and instinctively impressive that he might start for 15 NBA teams right now -- put on a historically wowing show and became the biggest story of the first day of the NCAA Tournament thanks to the No. 12 seed Racers' 83-64 upset of No. 5 seed Marquette. Morant notched the ninth triple-double in tournament history, becoming the first player since Draymond Green (2012) to achieve the feat.
His line on Thursday: 17 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds.
While college basketball fans have known about Morant for months now, Thursday signified his arrival on the national stage. The projected top-five lottery pick has an incredibly bright future ahead of him; who knows what Saturday vs. No. 3 seed Florida State will bring, let alone the next 10 years of what most presume will be a good-or-better NBA career.
"This phenomenon, Ja Morant, wherever we go, the crowd's there to see him," Murray State coach Matt McMahon said.
The nation saw him and his tantalizing potential on Thursday.
Racers fans showed up to the XL Center in hordes, and within five minutes of the tip, everyone not in Marquette colors and garb was oohing, ahhing -- and siding and riding -- with one of the best players in America.
"We won't be overlooked anymore," Morant said at his locker afterward.
Let the record reflect that Murray State's mutilation of Marquette was the big moment -- the growth of the flame -- of whatever comes next. I'm talking the next year -- or the next 12. This first day of the 2019 tournament, it's his. Morant went from star to supernova in 40 minutes.
Stephen Curry's still got a bit of Davidson to his name and game -- those memories of 2008 are forever part of his legacy. Thanks to Morant's leading of Murray State to the biggest win by a 12 seed in two decades, he's likely to similarly be remembered for his college origin story. No, I'm not predicting an Elite Eight appearance (not just yet!), but I do know this: What I saw Morant do on Thursday was as impressive -- or more -- than any NCAA Tournament game Curry played in.
The sophomore point guard worked his way through, under and around an overmatched, spiraling Marquette team that was beyond saving by the 12-minute mark of the second half. The game was so in hand, McMahon pulled his starters with less than two minutes remaining.
"I wouldn't have imagined that in the last couple of minutes," he said.
Morant was so keyed in on his dicing of Marquette, he never realized how badly the Golden Eagles were beaten down. A game that was supposed to be about Morant vs. Markus Howard (look how long it's taken me to even mention the Marquette star's name; he just had the quietest 26-point game of his life) became all about Ja.
"Once I realized it (the blowout), I was out of the game," Morant said.
According to ESPN's research, the last time a player had a 15-and-15 game (points and assists division) was Earl Watson in 2000. That's so long ago, Watson has already had a pro career -- and a pro coaching career. And Morant's 16 assists are the second most in the history of the tournament. He was responsible for 55 of Murray State's 83 points.
Are you kidding me?
And then there's the dunks.
It's not just the bouncy slams; if anything, Morant's passes are more entertaining. He whips and rips, flings and slings the ball, curling his wrist and sending the basketball on sharp angles that make the college game great. Morant isn't a draw because he's a great player on a mid-major team. He's a draw because he brings about the artful confidence of the sport that elevates basketball to a poetic, beautiful game.
"He's had multiple games this year where over half of his assists were one-handed lefty passes," McMahon said. "It's probably his best trait: he makes everyone around him better. We knew, watching the film, on the drives Marquette really converges on the ball."
How does a player take only nine shots and outshine the rest of the teams in the tournament? Ja Morant is the only explanation. A maestro on Thursday.
"His IQ for the game, he's a step ahead," McMahon said. "He sees things before anyone else ... He makes really difficult passes look very easy."
And in turn makes the game really hard for opponents.
Morant's confidence is palpable. It's also contagious. He rightfully credited his teammates after the game. Without them, he's not notching 16 assists. Tevin Brown had a team-high 19 points, while KJ Williams put up 16 and Shaq Buchanan finished with 14.
Don't forget: this is a 28-4 team. And it's discouraging to almost certainly know that, because Murray State was 3-5 vs. Quadrant 1 and 2 teams, it would not have made the NCAAs without an auto bid. You take 27 out of 31 games -- make it 28 out of 32 now -- and have one of the two or three most talented players in college basketball, you should be in the NCAA Tournament.
Now we know it for sure. Maybe we even have the start of a bigger March story, but let's wait for Saturday to find out.
After Morant, Buchanan and Brown finished their press conference, I walked with them as they curled through the bowels of the XL Center and made it back to their locker room. The three of them were joking, smiling, speaking sort of softly. One got the feeling this hadn't quite sunk in yet -- and still the win wasn't at all shocking.
"Honestly, if they don't know me by now, I don't know what to say," Morant said a few minutes later at his locker. "I hope they can really see, not me, but that Murray State is a great team and we can run with the big dogs."
Everybody can see that now. Everybody wants to see what Morant and Murray State can do next. The NCAA Tournament, as it annually does, has given us a great story and irresistible team worth following.
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